Between Asteroid 2012 DA14 passing a mere 17,200 miles from the surface and the meteor impact in Chelyabinsk, Russia causing over 1,000 injuries, I think it’s time we start calling February 15th International Space Junk Day. Children can celebrate by throwing rocks at each other. Adults can coat ice cubes in 151, light them on fire, and drop them into a vodka & tonic. We can call the drink an “Atmospheric Entry,” or maybe a “Siberian Sky.”
Archive for the ‘Science’ Category
A report thrown together by a Florida task force on education has proposed that more in-demand and higher paid majors (science, engineering, math, and tech) should pay less for tuition than the less in-demand majors (art, history, English, etc.).
You can read the whole proposal here, and marvel at the delightfully cheesy stock photography included for no reason.
Now before anyone in the comments turns this into a science vs. humanities spitting contest, please remember that we are not anti-science. Far from it. We’re not anti-anything, other than really bad ideas. And this is one of those really bad ideas.
Now, loyal readers will remember that I’ve used this blog to object to the misguided good intentions of a Florida educational task force once before. This post is going to read a bit like that one again. Once again, the state has a problem, in this case, not enough people entering fields that really boost the state’s economy. Once again, a short-sighted solution doesn’t seem to take into account the way people actually think.
The proposal would institute a tuition freeze for the fields the Florida government decided are the most valuable. So while studio art degrees go up and up year after year, engineering degrees would stay where they are. “Most valuable” here means “will lead to jobs that make the most money.” This is valuable to the state, of course, because higher earners will pay more in taxes.
Now before you claim there’s some sort of anti-right brain bias, know that the task force chair suggested Florida State could theoretically lobby to freeze the tuition for creative writing and film as well, since there’s been some success getting people into the entertainment industry so far. So if your school has celebrity alumni, than congratulations, you can pay less for taking the same classes they did.
The proposal seems to operate on this assumption: if certain degrees are cheaper, more people will get those degrees. But this makes no sense. These degrees are for higher paying jobs. If a higher salary for life doesn’t convince someone to work in a certain field, why would paying slightly less for four years make any difference at all? (more…)
If you’re NASA, you should really be more careful about throwing around phrases like “one for the history books.” That’s the terminology John Grotzinger, head of the Curiosity rover mission to Mars, used in a recent interview. But he was light on other details, so, since wild speculation is human nature, people are trying to figure out what Curiosity could have dug out of the Martian dirt that can be called “historic.”
The specifics of this discovery are remaining secret until (most likely) a conference in early December, to give the scientists time to triple-check the results. But since one of the primary objectives of Curiosity is to see if the Red Planet has ever been capable of supporting simple organisms, it stands to reason that a discovery along those lines would be the sort of thing NASA was looking for.
So what could they have found in the analyzed soil samples? Large amounts of methane, an organic compound that’s usually produced by lifeforms?
Sure, that’s a reasonable assumption, but who wants to hear that? I prefer the unreasonable, thank you very much:
- a human skeleton
- the Holy Grail
- the Ark of the Covenant
- whatever those magic stones were in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
- Amelia Earhart
- a dinosaur in a space suit (proving they didn’t go extinct, they just got tired of Earth)
- this photo:
With Hurricane Sandy, which you might know better as the Frankenstorm, pounding the East Coast, it got us thinking about the weird practice of naming hurricanes after people. It was odder still in the not-too-distant past, since from 1954 to 1979, hurricanes only received ladies’ names.
The practice started with the advent of the National Weather Service (which was then called the National Weather Bureau). The service was started by military meteorologists (yes, that’s a thing) after the end of World War II. They named them after the military phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc.). Needless to say, that was a bit boring and repetitive, so the NWS adopted an older, informal practice among meteorologists to name storms the same way people name their cars, boats, guitars, and guns — after women.
It took years of complaining by influential feminists to get the National Weather Service to play fair, since, as it turns out, a lot of women didn’t really like being compared to devastating natural disasters.
But weirder still than the whole idea of giving a unique identity to a giant pocket of low air pressure with high winds whirling around it is the fact that the most devastating hurricanes get their names “retired.” Yes, just as you’ll never see another Chicago Bulls player don the number 23, we’ll never get hit by another hurricane named Katrina or Isabel.
And that’s really weird, right? It’s like we want to honor certain storms as “all-time greats.” I’ve got this weird mental image of jerseys hung in the rafters of the National Weather Service offices.
I have news that’s incredibly disappointing to my younger self, age 3 to 9. Sadly, we’ll never be able to build a real-life Jurassic Park, because the half-life of DNA strands only lasts 521 years.
While it’s been generally assumed that DNA would break down after a long enough period, proving it would require large samples of theoretically DNA-rich material. A group of Australian scientists found the right test materials in bones of the now-extinct moa, an emu-like bird from New Zealand that looked a little something like this:
These bones were hundreds or thousands of years old, not millions, but it gave the scientists enough information to conclude that it takes 521 years after cell death for the bonds that hold together DNA to dissolve completely. Even under perfect conditions (for example, protected inside mosquitos preserved in amber like in Crichton’s book and Spielberg’s movie), there is no way the DNA would remain intact after the 6.8 million years that separate us from dinosaurs. The team’s best estimate for the oldest potentially readable DNA under perfect conditions is 1.5 million.
So no Cloneosaurus in our future. Though with that 521 year half-life bearing down on us, we still might be able to make a cloned Christopher Columbus if we hurry.
Source: Hark! A Vagrant
The fact that women aren’t paid as fairly as men isn’t news to anyone. But this is the first time I’ve seen that stat approached as a highly controlled purely scientific study, and directed at the very people conducting the study.
A group of researchers at Yale conducted a double-blind study that sent out identical application materials for entry-level academic science jobs. The catch? The applications were randomly given a male or female name. You can read the full published paper here. (It’s only six pages, so it is readable for the curious.)
The end results were biased. Really, really biased. On a scale of 1-5 in the categories of competence, hireability, and mentoring, women were consistently rated about 0.7 points lower then men. The “hiring” scientists were also asked to offer a starting salary to the applicants. The women were offered an average of $26.5K. The men were offered a little over $30K.
Marie Curie must be turning over in her radioactive grave.
I’m sure you could probably do this study with any industry and get more or less the same results. But the reason this study is worth a blog post is (a) the whole scientists using science against other scientists thing has a bit of an ouroboros feel to it and (b) there is already such a strong stereotype against women in math and science. This study suggests that stereotype might be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If women are rated lower and paid less, there will be fewer female scientists considered eligible candidates and more female scientists who look elsewhere for a field where it is easier to thrive unimpeded. From the study’s conclusions:
To the extent that faculty gender bias impedes women’s full participation in science, it may undercut not only academic meritocracy, but also the expansion of the scientiﬁc workforce needed for the next decade’s advancement of national competitiveness.
It’s not worth giving the individual scientists any grief about this. Like so many things, the problem is social and institutional, not individual. Note that the study found no discernible difference between male and female hiring academics. The women displayed the same bias. How can that be?
Once again, it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. Female scientist reads application from another woman, is subconsciously aware of the stereotype and subtly adheres to it, despite better judgment at a higher processing level. Or it might be explained by a type of subconscious stereotype threat. (Here’s a good NPR article on the topic.) Female scientist reads application from another woman, is actively aware of the stereotype, and judges more critically to prove that she has no bias one way or the other. With both explanations, the end result is the same.
That’s the sad/confusing part. Being aware of a problem is the right first step towards fixing it, but perhaps awareness subtly contributes to the problem too.